When a hazing incident occurs, an entire school community is affected. Parents no longer trust coaches and administrators to keep their children safe, athletes no longer feel protected or respected. And school officials are forced to face intense scrutiny from media and community members.
Additional consequences can include reduced enrollment numbers, sanctions imposed by state associations or law enforcement and negative public sentiment regarding future tax referendums, among others. Obviously, dealing with the fallout of a hazing scandal is a disastrous situation for any school system.
Instead of trying to put the pieces back together after a hazing incident, school communities should strive to take necessary preventive steps.
Elliot Hopkins, NFHS director of sports, sanctioning and student services, has been assisting schools with hazing education during his 20 years on the NFHS staff and seven years on the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association staff. As a result, he has become one of the nation’s leaders in hazing education and has spoken throughout the United States and Canada on the subject.
While there may not be a one-plan-fits-all program to prevent hazing, Hopkins offers the following ideas for school leaders to consider.
1. Establish Anti-Hazing Culture. Schools trying to establish an anti-hazing culture can start by crafting a catchphrase that promotes cohesion and inclusion among its athletes. For example, a school nicknamed the “Eagles” might rally behind a cry of “Eagles Fly Together” or “Protect the Flock.” Sayings like these may be considered corny to some, but through repeated usage they help athletes buy into the idea that they are united and must take care of one another.
2. Change Plan for Welcoming New Team Members. Take advantage of veteran players’ desire to “welcome” new players to a team – one of the primary motivations for hazing rituals – and keep it positive. Typically, incoming freshmen and other new additions to a team or club are given some article of clothing or gear that signifies their membership – a jersey, windbreaker, duffel bag, etc. Instead of allowing athletes to come up with their own initiation plans, create an event prior to the first game where the items can be presented in a positive, inclusive way. The presentation could strictly consist of the team, coaches and family members, or could be expanded to include athletic boosters, the community or even local news outlets. Regardless of its design, an event such as this accomplishes two goals: it becomes something the athletes can look forward to each year that ingrains in them proper methods of teammate inclusion and provides incoming players with an immediate sense of value and belonging.
3. Pair Veterans with Newcomers. Pairing each veteran player with a freshman or incoming transfer and charging the upperclassman with mentorship responsibilities can also be used to steer kids away from hazing activities. Mentors can answer any questions their inexperienced counterparts may have, offer advice on topics such as proper nutrition and equipment fitting, and possibly provide transportation to and from practices and games. The goal is to develop a bond in each mentor/mentee relationship that eventually becomes universal among all team members. Stressing the importance of “leaving a legacy” can be an effective tool for motivating older players who do not take their mentorship seriously. Coaches should instruct their upperclassmen that the best way to leave a legacy is to set up their sport program for success after they graduate, and actively participating in a mentorship program offers them a tremendous opportunity to do so.
4. Provide Hazing Information at Preseason Parents Meetings. Aside from providing information on the team’s schedule, rules and strategies, preseason meetings are an excellent opportunity to detail the treatment each player will receive from the coaching staff, as well as set standards for how players are expected to treat each other. With every parent in the same room, it is also an ideal time to ask for assistance in upholding these standards.
5. Reconsider Standing Traditions. In sports like baseball, softball, football and ice hockey, where large amounts of gear must be carried back and forth for practices, younger players being forced to do all the lugging is a common occurrence. “Traditions” like these should be avoided as they support the same hierarchy synonymous with hazing. As an alternative, coaches can integrate a system where each class is responsible for hauling different practice items, e.g., freshmen carry the bats, sophomores carry batting helmets, etc., that promotes equality.
6. Sit in Back of Bus on Trips. Sitting in the back rather than the front of the bus on road trips gives coaches a much better vantage point for monitoring inappropriate behavior and preventing it from getting out of hand.
7. School Employees on Alert. Administrators can aid the anti-hazing effort by urging all school employees – especially overnight security and custodial staff – to be on alert for suspicious activity on campus.
8. Reinforce Coaches’ Expectations for Behavior. Reinforcing the coaches’ expectations for athlete behavior can also be beneficial for administrators, especially with new coaches who may have not yet gained the credibility and trust of their players. It also establishes consistency, so kids are hearing the same message in multiple areas of the school building.
9. Address any Previous Hazing Situations. Administrators should also be aware of their coaches’ experiences with hazing as an athlete. If they were involved in an incident during their playing careers, it is possible they have normalized the behavior, which would need to be addressed.
10. Request Parents to Volunteer as Chaperones. Lastly, parents can help the cause by volunteering to chaperone on bus rides or overnight trips, hosting or supervising off-campus team functions and informing coaches of impromptu or secret team gatherings that can be prime settings for hazing events.
In the same way that everyone has something to lose in a hazing situation, everyone can take on a role in preventing these events from occurring.
Nate Perry is an intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan and a master’s degree in sport administration from Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Prior to the NFHS, he worked in athletic communications/ sports information offices at CMU and Tennessee Tech University.